Polish town confronts its history

An expose blaming Poles for a 1941 massacre of Jews forces a dismantling of the official

A bell peels in a church steeple above a small square in the dreary hollow of Jedwabne, some 90 miles northeast of Warsaw.

For more than half a century, this rural town concealed a terrible secret. In the summer of 1941, shortly after Nazi troops invaded the country, the town's ethnic Poles turned on their Jewish neighbors. They assaulted and herded hundreds of them into a barn, dousing it with gas, and setting it ablaze. All told, 1,600 Jews died on that July day.

For decades, the official "truth" held that a handful of Poles had played a part in the pogrom, but that it was the Nazis who were mainly to blame. This version of events was chiseled in stone on a monument to the victims here.

But in recent months, the release of the book "Neighbors" and a television documentary have sparked unprecedentedly open discussion and soul-searching among Poles, forcing them to face uncomfortable truths hidden or hushed up during the Communist era. The evidence now coming out shows that they were not only victims during World War II, but victimizers as well.

In March, the memorial was carted away along with the whitewashed version of history, which was shattered by the publication of "Neighbors," by the Polish-born, American historian Jan Gross. His book, published in Polish last year - English this year - relies on eyewitness accounts to chronicle Polish culpability at Jedwabne. Some still doubt that the Poles acted alone, while others contend that Jedwabne was one piece of a wider systematic slaughter of Jews in the area at the time.

Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, concerned that the controversy may set back efforts over the past decade to heal wounds between Poles and Jews, says his compatriots must face the truth. He has set aside July 10, the 60th anniversary of the massacre, for a nationwide commemoration, to include the unveiling of a new memorial.

"The Holocaust is coming to Eastern Europe," is the way Gross describes the unprecedented discussion that picked up in April when the airing of a two-part TV documentary beamed the troubling issue into the living rooms of millions of Poles. "Censorship was a fact of life under the Communists. Freedom of speech is relatively new. I think it is very healthy discussion. You have all of society taking part, in the press, on the streets, on the Internet in chat rooms."

"It's a cathartic discussion," adds Marian Turski, head of Warsaw's Association of the Jewish Historical Institute.

That debate has been heated at times, marked by nationalist rhetoric and, occasionally, anti-Semitism, highlighting the uneasy historical ties between Poles and Jews.

Last week, a prominent priest in the Baltic port of Gdansk was barred from the pulpit after placing in his church a display of a burned barn - a reference to Jedwabne - with a skeleton and signs reading "Jews killed Jesus Christ and prophets and also persecuted us."

Many Poles feel Jewish efforts focusing on their suffering during the war diminish the Poles' own, says Andrzej Richard, a sociologist at Warsaw's Central European University.

Three million Jews were killed during the Holocaust in Poland, which had the largest Jewish community in Europe at the time. About 3 1/2 million Poles died as well, as a result of the Nazi terror - many worked to death as slave laborers or killed in underground fighting.

Thousands of Poles protected Jews from the Nazis.

"The suffering that Poles endured is well chronicled. Poles were the first victims of the Germans, and Poland was the only European country not to actively collaborate with the Germans," Richard says. But he adds that the current discussion "is crucial for Poles' own sense of identity, to give a more accurate picture of who we are."

In March, Kwasniewski told an Israeli newspaper, Yediot Aharonot: "There are indeed black stains on our history and we will no longer be able to ignore them. With all the pain, they must be exposed and not plastered over."

But some were questioning the Polish leader's resolve to fight anti-Semitism earlier this month when a Polish daily reported that three of his top aides, including foreign-policy adviser Andrzej Maj-kowski, had taken part in a 1968 anti-Semitic-driven purge of the Communist Party. Two other aides did step down, but Kwasniewski ignored calls to fire Majkowski, chalking up his part in the party purge to a "youthful error."

In Jedwabne, many residents feel unfairly thrust into the front lines of the debate on Polish-Jewish relations, explains the town's mayor of nine years, Krzystof Godlewski. He has angered some townfolk by pleading for frankness and honesty in confronting the past. Reactions in Jedwabne have been mixed, he says.

"I think it depends on the person. But it's clear the older people in the town have taken it hard. I saw two old women crying by the memorial, it's not like they have hearts made of stone," he says. Others, however, have rallied around a local priest who has created a committee to defend the town's honor.

Investigators from the government's Institute for National Remembrance announced in late March that they had located the mass grave and barn in an untended field a stone's throw from the center of town. Measuring about 25 feet long and 8 feet wide, the mass grave was found using air force photos from the 1950s and sound-echo equipment. Investigators are also looking into reports of other pogroms in nearby towns, including Wasosz and Radzilow, the latter where 600 Jews were murdered at about the same time.

A Communist court in 1949 convicted 12 Poles of collaborating with the Germans in the Jedwabne pogrom. Chances of new criminal charges resulting from today's comprehensive probe appear slim, however. The lead government investigator, Leon Kieres, says charges are possible but would be hard to prove.

Questions about the Nazi role in the pogroms are being raised by Polish investigator Edmund Dmitrow, who says his research in German archives has turned up evidence that a Nazi commando unit was active in the region in the summer of 1941. Dmitrow says that German justice ministers dropped a war-crimes investigation against Gestapo death squad leader Herman Schaper in 1965, despite two eyewitnesses identifying him as the Nazi commander responsible for the Jewish massacre in Radzilow.

It remains to be seen whether the German role in the killings will be determined when the Institute wraps up its probe in the fall.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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